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Universal Design refers to efforts to ensure accessibility for all, such as the design of entrances and exits to buildings that support access for wheelchairs, walkers, and strollers. While the concept of universal design originally applied to architecture and product design, it is now being used to design more accessible classroom content, particularly content for online courses. The educational equivalent of universal design is called Universal Design for Digital Environments (UDDE), Universal Design for Instruction (UDI), or Universal Design for Learning (UDL). Those who have practiced UDL in their courses suggest that universal design benefits all students (whether they require specific disability accommodations or not) because the course content is accessible in multiple formats and students have choices in how to engage with the material based on their learning needs.

You can design more accessible and usable online content by keeping the needs of all types of learners in mind, including those with vision, hearing, or other types of disabilities. For example, you can include “text equivalents” (i.e., descriptions and captions) of all non-text content in their online courses, such as photographs, tables, and figures (Rowland et al., 2010). You can also add closed captions to online videos or create transcripts for videos and podcasts (Rowland et al., 2010). By making such material available, you ensure that all students have appropriate access to course content and can meaningfully participate in learning activities. UDL scholarship has suggested that content accommodations should be incorporated into the beginning stages of the course design process, rather than as additions to existing course content (Rowland et al., 2010).

According to the Center for Applied Special Technology (2011), learning materials that follow universal design guidelines meet three criteria. They provide: 1) multiple means of representation, 2) multiple means of action and expression, and 3) multiple means of engagement. One example of providing “multiple means of representation” is presenting course material in multiple formats—for example: as text, as audio, and as a visual. For instance, when describing the characteristics of a chemical substance, you can present the information as a textual explanation (in paragraph form), as a mini auditory lecture, and as a visual concept map. An example of providing “multiple means of action and expression” is giving students options of how to demonstrate their understanding of a concept. You can allow students to write a paper, create a multimedia project (e.g., video), take a test, engage in a debate, formal interview, structured dialogue, and so on. For each of these projects, you guide students in setting goals for their work, planning their projects, finding resources, and monitoring their progress. An example of providing “multiple means of engagement” is letting students choose what specialized readings or topics they want to study in more depth (from a list of instructor-approved choices) so that they can develop “mastery” in one sub-topic of the general course based on their personal interests.

Learn more about universal design of learning here: